Today would be Alan Turing’s 100th birthday. Alas it never transpired. He died in still debatable circumstances when he was in his prime. Was he a great pure mathematician? Yes, I’d put him almost as high as Gödel and that is like comparing a footballer to Pele. Both of course were not normal men. Turing had some fairly odd ideas and Kurt Gödel starved to death. Gödel was paranoid and refused to eat any food not prepared by his wife, then his wife died. Now Gödel was a nutter. Perhaps everyone who scales such (literally) infinite heights is going to be a bit unusual. It is hard to say what killed Turing. It has entered the popular consciousness that he was a sort of gay martyr (the statue of him in Manchester is in the gay village and not where it ought to be – in front of the University) and this is possibly true. He was convicted of “gross indecency” for having sex with another man. If there is a great villain here it is the law. My understanding is Turing had sex with Arnold Murray in his own home in Wilmslow and it all came out when he reported a burglary by his shagging partner. I fail to see how anyone can be “indecent” in their own home.
But it is possible the cyanide coated apple was a mere mistake. It has been mooted. Certainly Turing (a pure mathematician not schooled in lab discipline) was new to the game. And trust me as a physicist I have worked with lethal things and I wouldn’t trust a mathematician in my lab. Mainly those lethalities were in the sense of serious voltages and radioactive stuff and not any biohazard or poison*. So maybe? Who knows! Who cares! I am typing this on a Lenovo S205. That is what matters. It is certainly possible that the female hormones Turing was ordered to take after his conviction that caused him to grow breasts outraged him because he was also verging on being a world-class long-distance runner or following his conviction (not unrelated to the Cambridge spies) he lost his security clearance (for being gay – unlike the Cambridge spies he was not a KGB agent, just gay) or even the fact he was only a reader at Manchester because the security about Enigma/Lorenz had left a “black-hole” in his career. A fundamental thing here is that we were moving from Empire at the time and gave as a parting gift Enigma machines we’d snicked from the Germans but we didn’t want them to know we could break the code. Sneaky? Brilliant! But it meant nobody involved with Station X or Ultra got the credit. You can compare and contrast with Manhattan. Of course that was for obvious reasons much harder to keep on the QT.
There are people who define centuries. Roughly the Stephensons defined the C19. The C20th was invented by Nikola Tesla. Our time belongs to Turing. If you are reading this you are reading this on a Turing Machine. Much the same as the Turing machine I am writing this on. I got my first Turing machine (a 48K Speccie) in 1984. I felt like a king – I had a computer and they had been huge things maintained by fit librarian-type birds in lab-coats with clip-boards and owned by Bond villains in Mao suits and cats. I wrote a game even – it was very poor – but hell’s buggery – I wrote a game! I learned maths and drew fractals from outlines of programs from Scientific American my Dad nabbed from work. Alan Turing made it so. The game BTW was called “Orc Fighter” and was truly dreadful.
So fill your cups for Alan Turing. He made us. We have a category here called “Transformative Technologies”. Turing is certainly up there. He is up there with George Stephenson and the Wright Brothers. He is there in the pantheon with Tesla and Newton. And I don’t say that about many folks.
*My final university experimental project was… Well I built a magnetometer out of bits. It worked down to very few fractions of a Tesla. Nano Tesla I think. It annoyed some profs because I had proven data of car movements in the car park… Not everyone was actually clocking in or out at time. But that was not my original scheme. Oh, no I wanted to play with magnetotactic bacteria as a model for certain solid state systems. Three problems. A budget of GBP35, the fact these buggers come from New England swamps and thirdly nobody in the physics department having the slightest idea on the H&S issues. The magnetometer was built in the end with scavenged parts for about a tenner. God knows what happened to it.